The following is a response I provided on a friend’s Facebook feed. The response follows a set of comments voiced in reply to this article: Ottawa Parkdale Food Centre Says No To Food Like KD, Gets Criticized Online. Whether or not you believe it is right for Parkdale to reject certain types of food donations, I think the most important thing is that this article has people talking. Food insecurity is pervasive, and much like any problem, can only be dealt with appropriately if people are made aware of it. So please – spread the word – let everyone know that the awesome people who fight food insecurity every day need our help.
And while you’re at it – sign up for Farm To Fork. Together we can eliminate food insecurity in our communities.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Dan Gillis. I’m an Assistant Professor and Statistician in the School of Computer Science at the University of Guelph, and one of the co-founders of Farm To Fork – a project designed by my students in collaboration with the Guelph Wellington Food Round Table, local food insecurity experts, emergency food providers (EFPs), and the Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship.
The goal of Farm To Fork is to improve the quality and quantity of healthy food donated to EFPs (such as the food banks and food pantries). This is done by connecting donors with the real-time needs of the emergency food system (EFS). Potential donors sign up, connect with an EFP, identify when they typically go grocery shopping, and pledge items that are required. The system delivers an up to date list of needs via email to the donor based on the day the donor goes shopping.
Presently the website (farm-to-fork.ca) is available in Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo, but we will soon be launching a mobile app that will be available in any city that wishes to participate in the program. The mobile app will alert donors as they are approaching a market or grocery store with a list of emergency needs. We are also looking to integrate Farm To Fork with Point-Of-Sale systems used in the various grocery chains.
Why are we doing this? The Farm To Fork team firmly believes that everyone, absolutely everyone, deserves access to healthy food, not just those of us who can afford it. This can only be achieved if everyone is aware of what is needed, in real time.
While numerous studies have identified the benefits of healthy food, many food banks and other emergency food providers receive lower quality/less healthful foodstuffs because they are non-perishable. In moderation these foodstuffs aren’t a problem; as a staple they are. It’s not that donors are donating maliciously – quite the contrary – they donate because they know it’s the right thing to do. The problem is as simple as a disconnect between what is needed, what can be accepted, and what is donated.
Often the refrain I’ve heard when talking about improving the food that is donated focusses on the belief that “something is better than nothing”, and “beggars can’t be choosers”. While 500 grams of processed sugar would provide approximately 2000 Calories of energy – the same amount needed daily by an adult male – it is clearly not sufficient to maintain a healthy lifestyle. We need to do a much better job of informing the public of the ongoing and persistent problem of food insecurity, and we need to arm those who can donate with the tools to make a significant difference. We need to talk about this issue, and demand more from not just our leaders, but ourselves.
This starts by making sure that everyone is aware of what food banks and food pantries can accept. Many food banks and pantries can receive fresh produce, but don’t (or they receive it in inadequate amounts). Many food banks and pantries receive significant amounts of a certain set of foods, but lack others. Many food banks suffer through feast and famine because donations are inconsistent throughout the year. Most food banks and pantries require our help, but people are unaware of the magnitude of the problem of food insecurity. It affects us all, directly or indirectly.
The truth of the matter is that we can do better. Our country wastes approximately 40% of all food produced. Almost half of the waste happens in the home, costing every Canadian household approximately $1500 every year. The waste – often fruits and veggies that have been left to rot – represents food that could have been put to better use.
While we might debate whether or not it was right for the Ottawa Parkdale Food Centre to reject donations, they have started a conversation that should have been started long ago. Food access isn’t the domain of the rich – everyone deserves access to healthy food. It’s up to us to do more to make this happen.
We can do better.
We must do better.